Tips and Tactics For Catching Northern Pike On Mid-Winter Ice

Ask most Northern Pike enthusiasts about winter fishing and you’re likely to hear a lot about the strategy for catching or spearing them during the early season. Pike devotees are always the first to arrive on the ice when it is scarcely thick enough to support their own weight, let alone a spear house. But they know the secret; Pike fishing during winter is all about location and the relationship between the Pike and their food.
     In early season, larger Pike remain in the shallows as long as the fall spawning Tulibees and/or Whitefish inhabit the flats and adjacent drop-off areas. These soft body fish provide a healthy meal for the Pike and so the big rush for savvy Pike anglers is to get there before the food and therefore the Pike, move out. For a lot of winter anglers the story ends here as they move on to fish Crappies, Perch or Walleye. If that’s the way you like it, great! But if you’re willing to make a move or two, you can stick with these Pike as they move into mid winter territory.
     Let’s stop here for a second. Before you start packing up all of your gear and rush out the door for Lake Picklethese, let me add that knowing whether or not your lake contains larger Pike is your first priority. Not all lakes are equal and Pike living in lakes with prime habitat and forage will grow larger than their cousins in lakes that provide less ideal habitat will. If your goal is to locate larger fish, do a little research first. Paying close attention up front to the forage species available and size structure of the Pike in a lake will pay off big time when you start fishing it.
An awful lot of this information is already available by taking a look at the “Lakefinder Section” of the DNR website. If your goal is action, not size, you probably already know about a handful of lakes that fit the bill. In either case you can make an educated guess on Pike location by having a handle on the food that your lake has available. Whether the majority of Pike in your lake feed on Tulibees, Suckers, Crappie, Whitefish or some other game species, knowing the habits of the forage is just as important as learning the Pike’s feeding habits.
     Many of the forage fish that fall into the preferred food category for Pike move into deeper main lake areas in mid winter. Soft bottom areas located in or near deep-water “holes” tend to contain insect larvae and small minnows that attract forage species like Tulibees (Northern Cisco), Whitefish, Suckers and Crappies. With the proper food chain in place, you have the makings of a good Pike fishing spot. So that’s it, there you have it, just find the deep water and start fishing right? We’re not quite ready to start fishing just yet. Locating the Pike’s food source is just one of the key pieces of the puzzle. Understanding how Pike arrange their kitchens is another important part of the puzzle.
     No matter where you locate them, Pike are still ambush feeders. Even though they might not be located in what we think of as classic ambush territory like a weed bed or sunken log, they’ll still find some type of hideout where they’ll lay and wait for unsuspecting prey to come close enough to strike. Structure in open water areas could be anything from an inside corner along a steep drop off, a rock pile or if you’re lucky, maybe even a deep weed bed close to a deep hole. Sharp breakline (drop off) areas are a nifty starting point because they’re easy to figure out. Start your search by taking a look at your lake map and identify two or three areas of the deepest water, then narrow your choices by finding the steeper drop off areas. Once you have a couple of good steep breaklines singled out, looks for turns (corners) or dips that interrupt the drop off. As schools of baitfish move along these steep breaklines, these interruptions force them to stop. Turn or slow down and for a brief moment they’re vulnerable to attack by the waiting predator. With a little practice, you’ll be amazed at your ability to guess the “sweet spot”.

     Once you’ve picked a couple of good-looking areas, it’s time to get started. I believe in drilling lots of holes because this will really increase your odds of finding that one perfect spot. It’s like entering a sweepstakes, the more you times you enter, the better the chance of winning. Try to drill your holes in batches with a several of them out over the deeper water and some of them up on the breakline. It’s nice to be able to move from hole to hole almost as if you were trolling along the drop off.

image of ice fisherman holding large Pike
If you’re willing to move with them, you can stick with giant Pike as they move into mid winter territory. Targeting open water areas where they feed is the key.

image of ice fishing holes augered in a line
Once I get to an area that I like, the first thing I do is drill a line of holes to "troll". Drill some deeper, some shallower. Work your way from one to another with a variety of baits. It's not unusual to drill a hundred holes, maybe more so in mid winter, a good fast cutting auger like the Strikemaster Lazer will make moving a lot more efficient.

     Fishing tackle and presentation isn’t all that complicated, but you should have least three basic rigs with you. First, a good tip up rigged with freeze resistant, coated line. I like to set mine up with a ½ ounce egg sinker that I slide directly on to the main line, then tie on a good snap swivel to use as a sinker stop. You can rig up a nearly bite-off proof leader using 17-pound test monofilament or better yet, one of the clear fluorocarbon lines. Tie on a 2/0 to 4/0 plain hook, then tie a loop on the open end and attach it to the snap swivel. You can use wire if you like, but it’s not as handy to work with and you’ll have to re-rig if a fish puts a kink in the steel.
     Rig up one or maybe two spinning rods with 8 to 10 pound monofilament. If you plan to fish inside a shelter, Berkeley’s Fire Line is nice, but outside in cold weather, freezing causes some trouble. If you really like the Fire Line but still plan to fish outside and want to slow down freeze up problems, spray it with the same silicone line dressing that the fly fisherman use. That helps shed water and reduces freezing (it also really makes the line spool out easy). Use the same kind of mono leaders that I suggested for your tip up. You’ll want good live bait for the tip up. Large Golden Shiners, Creek Chubs, Suckers or Redtails will all work. I like to tail hook the minnow with the hook running parallel to the dorsal fin.
     Lures I like for the jigging rods include the flashier jigging spoons like Northland’s Airplane Jig, Swedish Pimples in the silver or copper colors, Nils Master’s Jigging Shad, or Jigging Rapalas. Another great jigging trick I picked up from buddies who like to fish for Lake Trout is a 3-inch White tube with a ¼ or 3/8 ounce jig head stuffed inside. All of the jigging baits can be tipped with a head or tail cut from a minnow. For this you could use fatheads, shiners or about anything you have on hand. In a pinch, even frozen minnows work okay for this.
     Start by setting the tip-up first. Set your bait about two feet off the bottom in one of the holes that are up higher (shallower water) on the breakline. Once the tip up is set, grab one of the jigs and work in one of the deeper holes, but still reasonably close to where you set the tip-up. Pike are curious, so jig aggressively anywhere from the bottom on up to about 5 feet below the surface. Allow the jig to rest occasionally giving the nosy fish time to strike. A great trick for triggering a hit is to let the jig sit for several seconds, then give it a slight twitch before you start jigging again. That little twitch helps put ‘em over the edge.
     By now I’m sure that you’ve figured out that you move your setup from one hole to another as you troll down the breakline. When you find a “hot” area, linger for a while and when you don’t, move on. Incidentally, this is a great system for the kids because it keeps them occupied almost full time as you search for the active fish. To me there’s just something really neat about watching a youngster running for that flag when it goes up.

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